Angels in a Changed America


Who is Walter Benjamin, and why is he haunting HBO?

For those who didn’t major in cultural studies, Benjamin was Europe’s greatest critic—make that apprehender—of modernity. But he couldn’t escape the Nazis, and when he was caught trying to flee them he killed himself. You can regard Benjamin’s suicide as proof that politics has the power to crush perception. But the real meaning of his desperate gesture is contained in the figure that was his most audacious creation. Benjamin called it the angel of history, and this is how he described its helpless majesty:

“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Meeting Tony Kushner at Starbucks is a little like running into Walter Benjamin at Disney World. In his black fedora, schlepping a sack of books, Kushner looks like a refugee among the latte lappers. “Let’s get out of here,” he hisses over strains of a premature Christmas carol. Something about this place cries out for Benjamin’s apparition to come crashing through the ceiling, as it does in Kushner’s best-known play. Angels in America is the most stunning evocation of Benjamin’s concept of change ever to grace the stage, and now it is about to reach the home screen.

On December 7, HBO will begin a two-part, star-studded production of the drama that shattered the rules of Broadway in 1993. The new version, directed by Mike Nichols, is a breakthrough event in television. Even as it shows how much has been lost in the Will & Grace-ing of gay entertainment, it also announces an opening in the mainstream for real queer culture in all its quicksilver complexity.

Tony Kushner is one busy yidl. While jiggering with the screenplay for Angels over 10 months of filming, he co-edited a new anthology of critical writing on Israel (Wrestling With Zion) and finished the book for a new play—a musical, no less. He spends most of these days toiling at the Public Theater, where Caroline, or Change opens on November 30, directed by the man who made Angels come alive on Broadway, George C. Wolfe.

“It was my first Broadway piece,” Wolfe says with no nostalgia in his recollection. “The play was living in all our bodies back then. We had all lost friends to AIDS; we all had the energy of struggle and the muscles of defiance. So this wasn’t in any way a memory play.” The epidemic may not inspire the visceral horror it once did in gay men of Wolfe and Kushner’s class and generation, but Angels still grabs you by the gut and bores into your secret yearnings. The screenplay homes in on the characters without losing the metaphysical street-speak that is Kushner’s signature. But it’s those characters and their conflicts that carry the major wallop now. The play’s sexual politics seem more sexy than political, and the spiral of contradiction that surrounds its every theme seems less terrifying than dramatic.

Maybe it’s the iconic cast, under Nichols’s fluent direction; maybe it’s the play’s interaction with a cinematic medium. “Film is about stories, theater is about ideas,” says Wolfe with a small smirk. Given Kushner’s commitment to radical theater, he must have agonized over balancing both. In the end, he insists, “I’m a playwright, not a politician or a theorist. Like Brecht said, the highest function you can expect from art is that it teaches you to move through the world with pleasure.” As with the didactic Bertolt Brecht (who wrote a crowd-pleaser called The Threepenny Opera), the pleasure of Kushner’s plays depends on your willingness to be entertained by ideas that subvert even themselves.

In Angels, every character you expect to be good is capable of evil, and everyone who ought to be evil can love. Never have there been so many caring, sexy Mormons in a work by a card-carrying lefty. As for the Angel, she has eight vaginas and the means to use them—even on the dying faggot she transforms into a prophet through an orgasmic act. He ascends to heaven on a golden ladder, and just when you think you’re in a Christian potboiler about the rapture, it turns out that God has disappeared and the bureaucrats who run paradise want this prophet to end the human quest for change. But he rejects this temptation and demands “life . . . more life” instead: life as rebellion against celestial stasis; change as ecstatic, unmanageable pain. This is what the pioneer woman in Angels says when she pops out of a diorama at the Mormon Visitors Center: People change when God rips out their intestines, stuffs them back in a different way, and “it’s up to you to sew yourself up.” Benjamin tried to describe that ineffable process, and Kushner admits, “I’m indebted to Benjamin to the point of larceny.”

If Angels is a drama about change, change has fucked with the play in unforeseen ways. We’ve become accustomed to the face of ambiguity; it’s the hallmark of upscale entertainment and a specialty of HBO. With its flights of magic realism, Angels fits snugly in the pay-cable repertoire alongside Six Feet Under and Carnivàle. In the wake of Showtime’s Queer as Folk, Kushner’s bold depiction of homosex feels like something Mike Nichols would otherwise have had to invent to hold an audience that doesn’t think it’s experiencing modern drama unless the male leads kiss. That once forbidden, now expected homo moment is an emblem of what has changed.

The category of the sodomite is still a social necessity, as the ferocious battle over gay marriage attests. But in liberal America, the status of gays has changed. It’s possible to lead a decent life as a friend of Dorothy or a sister of Sappho as long as you’re white and well-off, and you act like a regular Dick or Jane. (Everyone else better be entertaining.) This new situation has altered the meaning of the words gay and queer. The former now refers to a sexual orientation; the latter is a social position, a place at the margin as opposed to at the table. Where you sit depends on more than who you shtup.

Angels was one of the first popular plays to draw a connection between race, gender, and sexuality. It took the new identity politics incubating in the academy and brought it to Broadway. At the same time, it performed a critique of identity politics by portraying the complexities and multiplicities that come with simply existing. Angels anticipated the attitude that would emerge from the shadow of AIDS, as it became clear that deviance from the norm is the true basis of a queer identity. By now, that concept has expanded beyond homosexuality. Any woman whose libido violates the expectations of her gender can consider herself queer. Then there’s the increasingly porous boundary of race, a subject Wolfe’s productions at the Public often address. “There’s a whole new conversation out there,” he says, “a new crop of people who don’t consider themselves black or white.” Are they queer? It depends on what that is.

If this isn’t enough to bust your balls, queer is also a verb. To queer something is to mess with its assumptions. Let Kushner elaborate: “Queering is a critique of the homogeneity that works menacingly within the heart of liberalism. The thing that makes liberalism fascism in slow motion is its sense of coherence—and queering is there to say, a lot is being given up in this process and these things must be articulated, explored, recovered. The queer project is about digging and digging and finding those moments that the liberal project can’t afford to admit.”

But the liberal project is a hungry beast. It gobbles up dissent like Bill Clinton at Mickey D’s, and it can easily digest the radical vision of a decade ago. The image of white gay men struggling to survive is a bit overripe these days. It’s apparent now that every character in Angels (and probably in the audience) is what the prophet calls them in his final speech: “fabulous.” And most people who die of AIDS these days aren’t fabulous. The play’s power now resides in its astounding theatricality and philosophical reach, but to the extent that it’s “a gay fantasia on national themes,” as Kushner dubbed the original, Angels feels like what it wasn’t in 1993: a memory play.

“I’m a playwright,” says Kushner, “not a theorist.”

photo: Sylvia Plachy

Since his big breakthrough, Kushner has written several dramas that will never be optioned by Rosie O’Donnell. “I love it that fans of Angels in America had to suffer through a three-and-a-half hour play about Afghanistan,” he snorts. He’s thinking of a wonderful, thorny piece called Homebody/Kabul that will be revived at BAM next spring. Kushner’s current opus is even more unexpected: a sung-through musical scored by Jeanine Tesori and written almost entirely in verse. It’s set in the fall of 1963, when the civil rights movement surged toward power—and when everything orderly exploded along with John F. Kennedy’s skull. “It was a tinderbox moment,” Kushner says, “an epistemological break. Suddenly there was something new.” Hence the title: Caroline, or Change.

But those words have a double meaning. Change also refers to the petty cash a Jewish family living in Louisiana doles out to its black maid (powerfully played by Tonya Pinkins). In order to teach the young boy of the house not to leave change in his pockets, the family allows Caroline to take whatever she finds there. For her, these throwaway coins mean dental work or clothes for her three children, and the pain of scrounging for white people’s leavings leads to a horrifying confrontation, when Caroline turns on the eight-year-old who is deeply attached to her—and grieving for his dead mother. Answering his impetuously racist outburst, she tells him that all Jews burn in hell.

Unlike Kushner’s other plays, this one is loosely autobiographical. He did grow up Jewish in Louisiana, and though his mother didn’t die during his childhood she struggled with breast cancer. Like the boy in Caroline, Kushner was drawn to the family maid. “She had one remarkable characteristic: She didn’t smile a lot and she wasn’t nice like other people’s maids. I loved her and she loved us, it turns out now.” But love is warped by stigma, and in the ’60s the racial order positioned Southern Jews and blacks in an uneasy hierarchy: the not-quite-white just above the never-to-be. These two spoiled identities produced a certain solidarity along with a special hostility. The conflict was shaped not just by religion and race but by money. “These are tenuous but affectionate relationships that become almost unworkable when money is introduced,” says Kushner. “It’s the Moby Dick moment when they nail the doubloon to the mast and everything changes.”

In a sense, Caroline is Kushner’s attempt to queer Angels by putting cash back into thinking about race and gender. After all, money is a major signifier of status, and fear of falling even further is what keeps stigmatized people from uniting against the order that oppresses them. It stops white women from identifying with black men, and prevents gay gents from relating to butch dykes and trannies. In challenging sexist assumptions on the left, identity politics has obscured the significance of cash. Now it’s time to make the analysis whole, and Caroline announces that change. “The ’80s and ’90s were about an illusion of abundance,” says Wolfe. “But more people are like Caroline today. And $30 a week ain’t enough.”

Caroline departs from the domain of Angels in another important respect. All the men in this musical are absent, archaic, or too depressed to communicate. This is a play about women and children, and that creates another layer of complexity, reflected in Tesori’s propulsive score, which includes music for the washing machine and radio in the basement that is Caroline’s world. In this character, Tesori sees many issues she tackled in women’s studies: “slicing off parts of yourself, not wanting to take up much space, living in an emotional basement with four walls around you at all times.

“This story could have been Medea,” Tesori says, “but it’s not. It’s about a woman who understands that there’s nowhere to deposit her talent and intellect. She kills them off so she can advocate for the going-forward of her children.” As the daughter of Sicilian immigrants—another not-quite-white group in America—Tesori found much to connect with in Caroline’s struggle. “The idea of moving beyond the generation before you produced a lot of rancor and misplaced aggression in immigrant households. I understand that legacy.”

Two sorta white folks collaborate to create a poor black woman. A black director depicts the ways of Southern Jews. The director and author are gay—and if you listen closely you’ll find evidence that the eight-year-old protagonist of this play will grow up to be that way. These permutations speak to a new identity politics of “subtlety, sophistication, and complexity that reflects the world we’re experiencing now,” to quote Kushner. This resonance with the present makes Caroline, which presumes to be a memory play, seem oddly more contemporary than Angels. After 9-11, America is closer to the unfathomable feelings that the JFK assassination unleashed. “We’re at the same point now,” Wolfe maintains, “and war as a tactic of heroics has only intensified the fragility and vulnerability.”

What does this have to do with Walter Benjamin? Everything, Kushner insists. “Caroline is a woman who loses her mobility. She can’t stop grieving over losses, and, like Benjamin’s angel, her face is turned to the past. She wants to go back, but the terrible lesson of history is that she can’t.” Her brazen teenage daughter who won’t take shit from white folks propels the play—and the world—forward. Violence, struggle, and backlash will follow, but she sees only the world as it is and must not be. She will be fabulous.

All this talk about the angel of history has made me think about my first reaction to the Twin Towers falling down. Unable to process this terrible event, I was exhilarated. I felt weirdly giddy in the face of something so unimaginable and uncontrollable. Before horror set in, there was a primal pleasure at the storm of change. “Ah,” Kushner says softly, almost reverently, “the apocalypse.”

Research: Matthew Phillp

Related Article:

Michael Feingold’s review of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change